Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Great Escaper: Thomas Barker Leigh

This piece originally appeared on kristenalexanderauthor.blogspot.com.au on 30 October 2014.

My research into the Australians of Stalag Luft III is going slowly but surely. Happily, since handing in the manuscript for one book, and publication of another, I have had more time available to simply read around the subject and delve into files. Regular readers of my blog and various Facebook pages may recall that I have written a couple of posts regarding Thomas Barker Leigh, and he appeared in the commemorative article I wrote about the Great Escape that was published in Sabretache back in June.

Here is a little more about Tom Leigh’s life.

Tom Leigh was born in Waverley, Sydney, on 11 February 1919. He was the second son—and child—of a British father and Australian mother who lived in Shanghai, China. His mother had returned to Australia for his birth, and later for that of his sister. By the time of his mother’s death in 1926, Tom and his siblings were much travelled, having visited Australia on a number of occasions. Their father died in 1932, but the three children had lived in England since their mother’s death. They all attended boarding schools and spent holidays with family friends or their guardian.

After turning 15, Tom took the entrance examination for the Training Ship Mercury. He passed, was declared medically fit for sea service, and commenced on 30 September 1934.

TS Mercury was located near Hamble airfield near Southampton, in Hampshire and it seems the aerial activities attracted Tom’s attention. Rather than the natural progression into the Royal Navy or Merchant service, within months he was being coached for the entrance examination at the Royal Air Force’s No. 1 School of Technical Training at Halton, located near the village of Halton, in Buckinghamshire the heart of the Chilterns. He left Mercury on 29th July 1935 and joined the 32nd Entry of apprentices on 20 August. Allocated service number 568142, he was attached to A Squadron, No. 1 Wing as an aero engine Fitter II. He was promoted to Leading Apprentice and took on additional responsibilities which usually included commanding a room of 21 junior boys. With responsibility came privilege, and he moved from his dormitory to a room of his own. He passed out on 26th July 1938 and was attached to 48 Squadron squadron as an Aircraftman 2nd Class.

Tom was later offered aircrew training and was posted as an air gunner to the newly reforming 76 Squadron RAF in May 1941. Based at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, 76 was a heavy bomber squadron. After relocating to Middleton St George, County Durham, the squadron carried out its first operation on the night of 12/13 June. It continued to play its part in the RAF’s bombing offensive, carrying out raids on a variety of targets including industrial centres and railways.

Tom was commissioned as an officer and allocated service number 46462 with effect from 2 August 1941. This was gazetted on 30 September 1941. But he did not see the gazettal.

On the night of 5 August 1941, he was the rear air gunner on Handley Page Halifax L9516, which was tasked with bombing railway workshops at Karlsruhe in southwest Germany. They took off from Middleton St George at about 9.45 p.m. and reached the target area with little worry. They bombed the larger of two fires below, possibly at Mannheim, and were then badly coned. They copped a lot of flak and one half of the Halifax’s tail unit was destroyed. At about 2.00 a.m., the pilot, Sergeant Thomas Byrne, put the Halifax into a steep dive and gave the order to bale out. Byrne made it as far as the Belgian coast where he was shot down by a fighter, and crashed near Glabbeek in Belgium. He was captured at Louvain shortly afterwards.

It seems the Halifax was quite low before the men were able to jump. Flight Sergeant Cyril Flockhart, for instance, parachuted out at 500 or 600 feet. He landed on a road between Worms and Lampertheim and was later captured near Worms. Sergeants George Taylor and Leonard Thomson were captured near Karlsruhe and Sergeant John Pitt was nabbed at Mannheim. Sergeant Brown did not survive.

Tom was on the run for about five hours before he, like Flockhart, was caught near Worms at 7.00 a.m. He and Flockhart travelled separately after landing, and were not captured together, but both were taken to the barracks at Worms where they were interrogated by a series of polite Army and Luftwaffe officers, who all spoke English well. Later that day, they were taken to Dulag Luft at Oberusel, near Frankfurt, where they experienced more sophisticated interrogation.

From there, Tom was purged to another camp but, by October 1942, was in Stalag Luft III near Sagan, in the German province of Lower Silesia.  He was originally in East Compound and, when it was opened in March 1943, he was moved to North Compound, from which he made his bid for escape on the night of 24/25 March 1944.

There are many gaps in Tom’s story and I will slowly work on filling them. Sometimes, if I am lucky, scraps of information, gleaned from official forms and letters, when combined with memories, take on a new meaning.

The only photos of Tom are black and white. I spend hours looking at them trying to glean every possible shred of evidence from them; trying to conjure something of the three dimensional personality hidden by the two dimensional image. Tom looks such a happy young man in the photo, snapped so many decades ago. His eyes shine and dance and smile. His service record revealed that those glowing eyes were blue. Blue eyes. To know that, makes all the difference. So too, does the recollection of Canadian George Sweanor, who recalls that Tom had a boyish charm that appeared so carefree.

When the time came to nominate the inscription for Tom’s headstone, his sister nominated this quartet from Kipling:

E’en as he trod that day to God
So walked he from his birth
In singleness and gentleness
and honour and clear mirth.

 (NOTE: this is how it was provided to me by a family member. The third line is misquoted and I don’t know if this mistake is the sister’s or the IWGC’s.)

Because of letter limitations, the Imperial War Graves Commission would only allow a contraction:

E’en as he trod
that day to God
So walked he
from his birth

How well George’s recollection tallies with the way Tom’s sister remembered him, as attested by the Kipling quote, and also from his smiling photos.

I was thrilled when Geoff Swallow recently provided me with a copy of Tom’s grave so I could see the meaningful inscription. For those of you who don’t know, Geoff is the man behind the RAAF Deaths Photographic Archive of Headstones and Memorials and his aim is to collect headstones or memorial photos of every one of these Australians who died in the Air Force in WWII. Please like his Facebook page if you haven’t already done so. https://www.facebook.com/pages/RAAF-Deaths-Photographic-Archive-of-Headstones-and-Memorials-WW2-by-Spidge/223714254314847?fref=ts  
Here is the photo of Tom’s headstone at Poznan Cemetery, which Geoff sent.

This photo was taken during one of the All Saints Day ceremonies, held on 1 November every year. On this day, Polish Catholics make pilgrimages to the graves of those who have gone before. They tend the graves, lay wreaths, and light candles. As evening falls, the flickering candlelight creates a wonderfully evocative, reflective atmosphere.

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